Is Google killing privacy?

Interesting meditation by Randy Cohen, “The Ethicist” in the New York Times Magazine. Someone wrote in to ask if it’s ethical to Google someone they’re dating. His reponse includes this riff:

The Internet is transforming the idea of privacy. The formerly clear distinction between public and private information is no longer either/or but more or less. While the price of a neighbor’s condo may be a matter of public record, it’s a very different kind of public if it’s posted on the Internet than if it’s stored in a dusty filing room open only during business hours. This distinction does not concern the information itself but the ease of retrieving it. (And new technology brings this corollary benefit: you can now be consumed with real-estate envy in the privacy of your own shabby home.) With this change comes a paradoxical ethical shift where laziness, or limiting yourself to insouciant Googling, is more honorable than perseverance, as in hauling yourself down to the municipal archives, say.

It’s an obvious point, but a good one. And makes me think about John Pointdexter’s totally berserk Total Information Awareness Project. Any sane person is (rightly) worried about with Pointdexter’s desire to capture and preserve tons of commercial data about your everyday life — credit-card, travel, medical and school records, among others.

But in a way, Google’s already doing this, in a much more benign way. It frequently pulls together amazing bits of data, connecting the dots of your life — or your date’s life. Which is partly why people have been able to use the Web, and Google, to give Pointdexter a taste of his own medicine. According to this great story at Wired News:

Online pranksters, taking their lead from a San Francisco journalist, are publishing John Poindexter’s home phone number, photos of his house and other personal information to protest the TIA program.

Matt Smith, a columnist for SF Weekly, printed the material — which he says is all publicly available — in a recent column: “Optimistically, I dialed John and Linda Poindexter’s number — (301) 424-6613 — at their home at 10 Barrington Fare in Rockville, Md., hoping the good admiral and excused criminal might be able to offer some insight,” Smith wrote.

“Why, for example, is their $269,700 Rockville, Md., house covered with artificial siding, according to Maryland tax records? Shouldn’t a Reagan conspirator be able to afford repainting every seven years? Is the Donald Douglas Poindexter listed in Maryland sex-offender records any relation to the good admiral? What do Tom Maxwell, at 8 Barrington Fare, and James Galvin, at 12 Barrington Fare, think of their spooky neighbor?”

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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